In October 2006, famed hacker Julian Assange founded WikiLeaks, an innovative web-based platform designed to allow anonymous submission of secret and often classified information too hot for the mainstream media to handle directly. The site claims that within a year, it had received well over one million documents, many of which exposed serious corruption and criminal activity at the highest levels of government and industry. But it took until 2010 for Assange and WikiLeaks to become household names through the release of 400,000 classified U.S. military files about the war in Iraq, along with a quarter-million secret and highly sensitive diplomatic cables. The events of that year provide the primary focus for The Fifth Estate, a “based on-true-events” political thriller and character study that has trouble finding its footing despite a bounty of potential riches — high stakes, colorful characters, and a natural wedge into the complex issues of privacy, security, and transparency that characterize our time like no others.
Directed by Bill Condon, who’s known for critically acclaimed and Oscar-winning films like Gods and Monsters and Chicago, The Fifth Estate is based in part on books by two people who were actually less-than-central to the long-term history of WikiLeaks: German tech specialist Daniel Domscheit-Berg (played in the film by Daniel Bruhl) and British journalist David Leigh. Combined with a conscious decision made by Condon and screenwriter Josh Singer (TV’s The West Wing) to compress events and invent composite characters, the source material leads The Fifth Estate into a murky netherworld that lies somewhere between truth and fiction. The movie aims to include disparate points of view, ranging from U.S. diplomats to old-school journalists to hacker activists. But it winds up relying on the contentious (and largely fictionalized) friendship between Assange and Domscheit-Berg for much-needed drama. There’s just not much there.
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It’s hard to blame the actors for that deficit. Benedict Cumberbatch (star of the brilliant BBC television series Sherlock) manages a real balancing act in his portrayal of Assange as a man whose talent and pluck are matched by enormous ego and a penchant for self-righteous rage. His measured performance actually makes the rest of the film suffer by comparison. Daniel Bruhl, fresh from his role as legendary race car driver Niki Lauda in Rush (and who seems to have become Hollywood’s go-to guy for any character with a German accent) does as much as he can with a script that does little to humanize Domscheit-Berg. Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci — each of whom is capable of carrying a film — seem wasted here in the relatively minor roles of U.S. government officials grappling with WikiLeaks’ flood of illicit information.
Perhaps The Fifth Estate’s most glaring issue is one shared by Facebook drama The Social Network: it’s difficult to transform events that occur mainly in the virtual world of the internet into an engaging feature film. There’s something hopelessly mundane about windows opening on a computer screen, no matter what their contents. It’s just too much the stuff of daily life. At least the film draws attention to complex issues of free speech and social justice in the digital age — issues better explored, of course, on the web than at the movies.